Ford Motor Co.’s multibillion-dollar investment to build three battery plants and a new EV assembly plant is “really unprecedented for electric vehicles and batteries,” says JB Straubel, a co-founder of Tesla Inc.
September 29, 2021 • Jordyn Grzelewski, The Detroit News
(TNS) — Ford Motor Co.’s multi-billion-dollar investment to build three battery plants and a new electric-vehicle assembly plant is “really unprecedented for electric vehicles and batteries,” says JB Straubel, a co-founder of EV leader Tesla Inc. and CEO of battery recycling startup Redwood Materials, Inc.
Straubel was in town Tuesday for the Dearborn automaker’s official announcement, with battery manufacturing partner SK Innovation, of a $5.6 billion project to build “Blue Oval City,” a 3,600-acre mega campus that will house an assembly plant, battery production facility and a supplier park in rural west Tennessee. Ford and SK are investing another $5.8 billion to build twin battery plants in central Kentucky. The two projects are slated to add 11,000 jobs across the two states.
Ford and Redwood last week announced they would partner on battery recycling and that the automaker would invest $50 million in the startup to help it expand its U.S. manufacturing footprint. The partnership is aimed at integrating recycling into Ford’s battery manufacturing operations with SK.
“It’s a huge investment, obviously, just the objective numbers,” Straubel told The Detroit News in an interview Tuesday, noting that Ford is calling this its largest U.S. manufacturing investment ever. “That in itself in pretty amazing, and really unprecedented for electric vehicles and batteries.”
Collectively, the three new plants are slated to have annual production capacity of 129 gigawatt hours, enough to power about 1 million EVs. “These are massive numbers,” said Straubel. “This is coming from a world where the previous biggest battery factories are on the order of 40 or 50 gigawatt hours.”
What makes the project unique, Straubel said, is that Redwood is involved right from the beginning, years before production is slated to begin in 2025.
“A lot of times this has been a little more of an afterthought,” he said. “Now, working with Ford, we’re getting way ahead of this. We’re able to plan this in a much more organized way so we can integrate this closed-loop material plan into the supply chain, into the facilities, even before they’re built.”
Redwood recently announced plans to produce battery materials, and the search is on for a new site outside of the company’s home base in Nevada. Straubel said Tuesday the company could choose a site as soon as early next year.
The layout of the Tennessee site has yet to be finalized, and Straubel and Ford said they’re still in discussions on what Redwood’s presence there could look like, though the intention is to partner on battery recycling. The companies also have said they’re discussing Redwood potentially supplying battery materials to Ford in the future.
On a media briefing this week, Lisa Drake, Ford’s chief operating officer for North America, said it’s Ford’s intention for Redwood to have a presence on the Tennessee site. Ford sees Redwood, she said, as “the first step as part of this fully built-in ecosystem inside Blue Oval City.”
Ford executives have said they see battery recycling as a crucial element of their transition to electrification.
“Our goal at Ford is to achieve a full closed-loop battery raw materials manufacturing ecosystem in the U.S., and we are really proud to partner on that with Redwood Materials,” said Drake. “Vertical integration like this has a great potential to lower battery cost production, and it certainly lowers shipping costs and helps reduce the packaging and the carbon footprint that’s involved with shipping these materials all around the world.”
Redwood says its recycling technology can recover, on average, more than 95% of the materials found in EV batteries, such as nickel, cobalt, lithium and copper. Those materials then can be reused.
The partnership between Ford and Redwood comes as Redwood looks to establish a stronger battery component industry in the U.S. Much of that industry is based in China. Straubel on Tuesday described his vision for a sustainable, domestic EV manufacturing ecosystem that ensures the transition to electrification pays off environmentally.
“It’s important to make sure the vehicles themselves, the parts we make them out of, are all as sustainable as possible. We can’t have the cure causing some of the problem that it’s trying to solve.”
The goal, for Redwood as well as Ford, is to secure a domestic supply chain of battery components to reduce the environmental impact of EV manufacturing, bring down costs and prevent production disruptions.
“Today, the whole supply chain for batteries comes from Asia,” said Straubel. “We’re localizing battery assembly, which is an amazing and critical first step. But even with that happening, all of those materials still are imported across the Pacific Ocean. That in and of itself is not a very sustainable situation. It’s also just not a very secure supply chain. It’s prone to disruption.
“I don’t think it’s really tenable to electrify the whole North American fleet with that model. So, part of our work and work together with Ford is to begin now to make sure we have a robust North American supply chain, including recycling.”